by Brian Tomasik
First written: Dec. 2014; last update: 17 May 2017
The following page summarizes several of the major themes of this website.
Suffering and ethics
Many ethical value systems feel that extreme suffering commands particular moral urgency compared with other priorities. The agony of, say, Medieval-style torture is not necessarily compensated by other, smaller benefits. We should give special attention to reducing the net expected suffering of all sentient beings when deciding our actions.
Animals significantly outnumber humans, and most people view animals as less important. These factors suggest that there should be low-hanging fruit for reducing animal suffering. In the USA each year, 10 billion land animals endure suffering in factory farms. The number of animals in nature is orders of magnitude higher, and wild animals also endure harsh living conditions and painful deaths. Because most wild animals die, often painfully, shortly after birth, it's plausible that suffering dominates happiness in nature. This is especially plausible if we extend moral considerations to smaller creatures like the ~1019 insects on Earth, whose collective neural mass outweighs that of humanity by several orders of magnitude.
In addition to considering the suffering of huge numbers of wild insects, we can take small steps to reduce the harm that we cause to insects in other ways. For instance, we can avoid buying silk and shellac, reduce driving (especially when the road is wet), prevent insect infestations in our homes, and try to avoid crushing insects on grass, the sidewalk, in garbage cans, etc.
In addition to reducing suffering in the short run, we should consider how our actions will affect the future, including the far future. We appear poised at a crucial period in history, where the trajectories of our technology and society may make a lasting impact on intelligence in our region of the universe for billions of years. It looks likely that artificial general intelligence (AGI) will be developed in the coming decades or centuries, and its initial conditions and control structures may make an enormous impact to the dynamics, values, and character of life in the cosmos. Colonization of space seems likely to increase suffering by creating (literally) astronomically more minds than exist on Earth, so we should push for policies that would make a colonization wave more humane, such as not propagating wild-animal suffering to other planets or in virtual worlds.
Digital minds will likely have important differences from biological minds, but they will still act intelligently in goal-directed ways. Since consciousness is not an ontologically special property of the universe but instead reduces to the operations of sapient creatures as they process information and especially reflect on themselves, it's plausible we should attribute consciousness to advanced digital minds as well. To avoid parochialism, our concern may even extend to cognitive architectures that look very different from our own. We can see traces of consciousness even in simple physical systems, and there remains an important moral question of how far down the ladder of complexity we want to extend ethical consideration.
What you can do
There are many ways to get involved in the task of reducing suffering. It's helpful to focus more on those that appeal to your interests and skills. Following are some broad categories:
- Earning to give: Rather than working at an altruistic charity yourself, it can be more effective to make money elsewhere and donate large portions of it to charity. This approach works well if you especially enjoy technology, finance, or other high-earning fields and if you think there's a low risk that peer pressure in such industries would reduce your altruistic ambitions.
- Research: There remain many crucial questions whose answers will influence where altruists focused on reducing suffering donate their money and time. Progress on these topics not only improves your own wisdom about where to focus but can also improve the priorities of many others.
- Movement building: Generating interest in reducing suffering effectively can multiply your impact by bringing in more minds who can contribute.
One of the most important questions to consider is what career you should pursue, since you'll spend a lot of your waking life at work.
Consider these actions:
- Reducing your water use may avoid killing tens to hundreds of thousands of crustacean zooplankton per year.
- Eat less corn/wheat/rice and more beans/nuts/vegetables.
- Consider converting your lawn to gravel if you actively manage it.
- Avoid biomass-based carbon offsets. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, consider donating to a renewable-energy charity like CEERT.
- Drive less, especially less in the rain. Don't buy silk. Avoid walking on grass when possible. And explore other ways to avoid hurting insects.
- Don't compost. Instead: avoid wasting food, dispose of food scraps in a sink grinder, or seal food in plastic bags and then put it in the garbage.
- Don't leave standing water outside, since it both breeds and drowns bugs.
- Rinse food crumbs from packages, bags, and containers down the drain before you throw the packaging out, to keep flies and maggots from growing in your garbage can.
Here's a ranked list of charities that I think prevent the most expected suffering:
- Foundational Research Institute: Researches considerations that might overturn existing assumptions about where best to focus our altruistic resources.
- Effective Altruism Foundation: Swiss charity building a movement of effective altruists focused on suffering reduction.
- Machine Intelligence Research Institute: Works on AGI control. Unlike the previous two charities, MIRI is not specifically focused on suffering reduction, but my current guess is that its work is still quite positive in expectation. That said, I'd like to see more research on the question of whether controlling AGI actually would reduce suffering.
For more details on my thoughts about charity choice, see "My Donation Recommendations".